“Summer’s Unwelcome Bus Stop”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on August 26, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

It’s so easy to forget what it’s like to be a kid. Even as a teacher surrounded by them, I am constantly reminded how adults can forget the pain of things like the end of summer vacation. No matter how hard we try to make school fun, it’s hard to compete against the freedom and unpredictability of summer. When those first few signs that classes are about to begin start appearing, a pall falls over even the happiest of students. This year, it happened in late July as I was watching Big Brother on CBS. A George Orwell fan, I’d stumbled across the show thinking it would reference 1984, and instead I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of reality television at its cattiest. Right in the middle of my weekly fix (I’m not proud), Walmart came on to utter the summertime blasphemy feared most by children: the dreaded “Back to School Sale.”

As a kid, these commercials were nails scraping across the chalkboard of my summer vacation, the clammy hand of mortality resting on what remained of my carefree days. After those first few advertisements for school supplies appeared, my friends and I viewed everything through the prism of our impending imprisonment, a kind of doomsday clock that loomed large over each passing day. On the other hand, our parents seemed to giddily count down the days as if anticipating parole.

None of the four seasons has such a clear starting line as autumn in America: regardless of what the calendar says, children know summer ends the minute the yellow bus stops on their street. The fall season used to be the one time kids never attended classes because they had to help with the harvest; now it marks the inevitable return of the ten-month planting season of academia. This year Stratford students begin school on August 30th, with their teachers reporting five days earlier to prepare the soil.

In the last two weeks, Stratford has been alive with preparations for the Big Day. In late August, even Staples resembles the birthday room at the Discovery Zone as kids bounce around the aisles in search of the perfect notebook. Parents perform subtle acts of bribery to ease the sting: I know you don’t like math, but this calculator has a picture of Dora the Explorer. Shopping for school supplies is at once horrifying and exciting for reluctant learners: only the love for my brand new Harlem Globetrotters lunchbox managed to pull me from my mourning bed and off to the bus stop on that first day of school.

From my perch on the library bench this week I see the mad dashes of harried eighth graders rushing to the references desk in the hope that suggested summer reading books haven’t all been taken out. I overhear two of them indulging in a little summer arithmetic: “We’re expected to read 8-10 books, but we only have to complete the reading questions for two of them. With six days left, that means…” Meanwhile, the mandated summer math packets pop up like Black-Eyed Susans on the sands of Long Beach as clusters of teens put the finishing touches on both their tans and algebraic equations.

Also in evidence are the dizzying effects of a parental grapevine that’s in full bloom: “What have you heard about Ms. Record for Physics?” one concerned father asks a neighbor at the deli counter of the Pickle Barrel. Talk quickly turns to plans being made for their free time now that the kids are back at school. “I might even get to a day game at Yankee Stadium,” he adds. Off to his side, his young son glares up at him.

As I placed my order, I could see myself in this youngster. I’m sure he feels the same sense of betrayal at how adults can so callously discuss the Death of Fun right in front of them. So I was as disappointed as anyone when it slipped out, completely by accident, as I chatted with his father. “Did you see that Irene Cornish wrote the school day is going to be fifteen minutes longer this year?” Now his kid was glaring at me.

If that young man happens to read this, please forgive me; sometimes we just forget. I hope everyone has a happy and healthy start to the new academic year.

“It Was Just That The Time Was Wrong…”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on August 12, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“A love-struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade

Laying everybody low with a love song that he made.
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, ‘You and me babe, how about it?'”

— Mark Knopler, “Romeo and Juliet,” 1981

Stratford has always had a complex relationship with its renowned American Shakespeare Theatre, but 1981 held such promise. Newly appointed director Peter Coe had just signed Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones to lead the Stratford Festival season productions of Henry V and Othello. The theatre seemed ready to “step out of the shade” of the previous years’ financial difficulties and into a new era. Unfortunately, 1982 saw the theatre’s last full season before the state took control amid looming foreclosure on the mortgage in 1983. For the future of this once-proud building, that season’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” proved prophetic. The next twenty-seven years played out like a Shakespearean tragedy as battles over its name (changed to American Festival Theatre in 1988), deed (finally given back to Stratford in 2005), and vision eventually erupted into the legendarily vitriolic town council debates over its latest renovation.

That the fate of the theatre still stirs such passionate debate underscores its importance to all of Stratford, embodying as it does not only our history but our noblest aspirations in the arts. It’s offered its citizens Shakespeare, yes, but also served as a gateway to the arts in so many other ways. In 1979 my dad took me to see Beatlemania there, and I still remember staring in awe as the majestic facade of the theatre emerged from the trees. After college, the siren song of the theatre was one of the reasons I chose to settle down in Stratford.

“I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you ’til I die. There’s a place for us, you know the movie song. When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong?”

While the time might have been wrong for the American Shakespeare Theatre to remain solvent back then, there has always been a place for this regal figure in the lives of Stratfordites. This Thursday, the 2010 Festival Stratford adds to the rich tradition of the theatre as the Stratford Arts Commission sponsors four days of free entertainment on its grounds. Each day the Stratford Arts Guild will showcase the work of local artists, and yoga instructor Ashley Bardugone will conduct classes each morning at 8am. “Quickies in the Park,” which showcases new works by Stratford’s SquareWrights members, will be presented along with the parody The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) more classic fare such as The Tempest. Children’s Day on Sunday begins with performances by local dance schools before Shakesperience Productions presents Rapunzel and the Interactive Shakespeare Workshop for Children and Families. (For times and other specific information, please go to www.festivalstratford.com or StratfordStar.com.)

This is Shakespeare the way Peter Coe would have wanted it: sparse, immediate, personal—how appropriate, then, that Henry V will also be performed. This festival represents Stratford in all her finery, showing off our best talent in one of our most scenic locations. Anyone that was lucky enough to attend one of last year’s performances will attest to the magic in the air as children and adults of all ages gathered to celebrate a truly unique family experience.

One can’t help but wonder if Stratford, without the constellating figure of the theatre towering over the Housatonic like the Bard himself, would feel the same pull to preserve and promote the arts as we do. Or do we reach a little higher because of it, our pride in our shared stage history pushing us to bigger and better things? I can think of no greater gift to our children than preserving the legacy of this magnificent building and allowing future generations the opportunity to experience the wonder of the theatre in their own backyard. As we celebrate Festival Stratford, let’s not forget the words of the man who helped built the theatre in 1955, Joseph Verner Reed, who said its purpose was “to present Shakespeare to young people in such a way that the plays become living, beautiful, exciting—and enduring.”

In these tough economic times, it’s hard to think of the future in the face of so many obstacles; I don’t claim to know the best way to fund the necessary renovations, nor do I know which artistic direction will best allow the theatre to become self-sustaining. I do know that the gift of Joseph Reed, compounded by the blood and sweat of countless hundreds over the last 55 years, was not a gift only for us. It is for our children and grandchildren who one day will look back and thank us for passing that gift onto them.

It’s fitting that Mark Knopler’s birthday is August 12th, the first day of this year’s Festival Stratford on the grounds of our weather-scarred theatre. The final words of his song could have been sung by the theatre herself to the citizens of Stratford, hoping that the time is right: “You and me babe, how about it?”

“Twitter Disappointment”

(Originally published on August 9, 2010, on RobertFWalsh.net)

What started as a whim has turned into a crusade: I’ve spent the last six days mud wrestling with Twitter as I tried to change my background image on the home page. I never imagined I would use this social networking service, consisting as it does of “updates” from friends in less than 140 characters per post. While not quite a technologic knuckle-dragger, I didn’t see the use of a medium that puts a premium on tedium.

To my utter surprise, I’ve grown to love it. I’ve assembled an eclectic group of talented people whom I can scroll through on my cell phone and entertain me while I wait in line at the theatre to be… well, entertained. The difference is that each person has mere seconds to keep my attention before a flick of my thumb brings up someone else; if Joel Stein doesn’t make me laugh then I’m thumbing over to CNN or the Stratford Star for news.

The downside is that it’s one more thing for me to get worked up about; when I discovered I could customize the background image on my page, I went right to work. Unfortunately, every time I hit that little Save Changes button I am faced with the ubiquitous “Fail Whale,” the cutesy-pie graphic that greets users whenever Twitter is over capacity and unable to work properly. The cute birds that are gleefully pulling the whale out of the waters below are meant to cushion the blow that my latest nugget of wisdom will go unposted. However, for the amount of time that Twitter has been over capacity in recent weeks, that whale died long ago of dehydration.

I’ve tried every conceivable time slot to update my page. I snuck out from the dinner table to try at six, then again right after the evening SportsCenter. Other unsuccessful attempts followed after the Mets game and the evening news. I felt lucky after I took the dogs for their last walk before bed, but it wasn’t to be. I got out of bed on the third night at 2:30 AM to tip toe to my computer and hope the West Coast had gone to bed early.  Even at 6:30 AM, the time my mom always called the safest time of day because it was either too early or too late for criminals, that stupid whale hovered on my monitor like a raised middle finger.

After trying almost all of the 24 available hours over the course of the past week, I resorted to the Twitter support page. Sure enough, there was a page dedicated to this very problem. For those of us having trouble posting our shiny new graphics, they asked that we leave a comment letting them know who we were—they would be monitoring the page. It was heartening to see that they were working on the problem and would have it fixed… “soon.” It was less heartening to see that there were 77 pages full of people who’d already left comments, and that most were months old. The last “update” from the Twitter techies was posted a month ago.

Still, when you’ve spent six days going Ahab on Twitter’s Great White Whale, you take your shot when it presents itself. I crafted a thoughtful yet pointed note that took pains to point out it was probably nobody’s fault, that these things happen and all, but that this issue had affected enough people to merit a speedier response (and thank you for any help you can give in rectifying this situation, blah blah blah).

When my little message didn’t appear in the comments section after the first attempt, I just assumed I had done something wrong. I wrote it all out again and… poof! Gone again. After the fourth try I realized that they must have stopped letting people post and switched to moderating the comments to weed out the angry folks. A quick look at the previous comments indicated there were a lot of angry folks!

That’s when I realized that the comments section, much like the floating whale, only gives the illusion of support. It’s as if Twitter is saying, “Silly boy. Whales don’t fly, and we don’t have the infrastructure to meet the demands of our users. We also quit caring what you thought after we realized we didn’t like what you thought. Still, it’s a nice idea, isn’t it?”

Although it’s a clear sign that I have completely taken for granted this incredible, free technology that allows strangers from across the globe to interact in real time, I’m still angry. For the first time since I read the Book of Jonah, I hate whales.